Born From The Border, Tijuana Grows In New Ways

Mar 28, 2014
Originally published on March 31, 2014 11:12 am

Tijuana is itself a creation of the border. The borderline was drawn here in 1848, as the United States completed its conquest of the present-day American Southwest. The border, along with the growth of San Diego and Los Angeles, gave Tijuana a reason to be.

Border security is ever-present here. The city has grown so close to the rusted U.S. border fence that it practically leans on it. The fence even cuts across the middle of Friendship Park, a circular plot of land that was laid out on the actual borderline as a symbol of the two nations' warm relations. Today the park might better be called the Friendship Half Circles.

For a few hours each weekend, people who cannot cross the border are allowed to approach that wall and peer through the heavy wire mesh at people on the far side.

One morning, a mother and father in Tijuana press against the fence to see their son for the first time in 15 years. "Oh, my heart!" the mother exclaims.

The son, who gives his name as Hector Razo, cannot easily risk a return to Mexico because he migrated illegally to the United States. He's been working, he says, currently as a painter.

"It's a lot of opportunities," Razo says, "and the life is really different, because my kids, they are really better."

His four children join him at the wall. They're in their teens and early 20s. They say they had attained a kind of permission to remain in the United States, as the Obama administration defers action against certain young people who admit to having entered the country illegally as children.

While Razo sought opportunity in the U.S., there has been economic growth in Tijuana.

In earlier decades, the city provided services that were forbidden in the United States. It prospered during Prohibition, both as an entertainment destination and as a way station for smugglers.

In more recent years the economy has diversified, though the city of about 1.3 million still relies on the border for growth.

It remains an entertainment center (though tourist areas suffered during drug-related violence of recent years). It is also a manufacturing center, home to foreign-owned assembly plants that tend to serve the U.S. market. High-tech firms are gaining a foothold in Tijuana. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports Friday on Morning Edition, they are working to fulfill the needs of tech giants in Silicon Valley.

Former Tijuana Mayor Hector Osuna, also an architect, is working on plans for a proposed medical center in Tijuana that would cater to the U.S. market. He says many Americans, especially Mexican-Americans, prefer the style in which they are treated by Mexican doctors.

Parts of Tijuana suggest its wealth. Modern glass buildings contain offices on some floors, a high-end restaurant on another floor, and a nightclub on yet another. There are neighborhoods filled with upscale restaurants, immaculate traffic circles and orderly streets: In Tijuana, unlike many cities in the world, cars actually come to a complete stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.

For all its growth, Tijuana can still be a hard place to live, with wages far lower than the United States. The city's informal neighborhoods spread across hillside and canyons. Many of the homes are perched precariously on steep slopes. Stacks of tires filled with sand or cement serve as the foundations.

One such neighborhood is the site of a famous landmark in Tijuana, though the houses and streets are so tightly packed it can be difficult to find. It's a concrete statue of a nude woman, 55 feet high. She has one hand upraised like the Statue of Liberty.

The statue's creator, Armando Munoz, says he built it for Tijuana's centennial celebration in 1990. The figure, then, is a reminder of just how relatively young the city is — a fact that Munoz tried to represent in this idealized sculpture.

She can be imagined as the ultimate border citizen: youthful, expressive and forever looking upward toward the future.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Ten days ago on this program, we heard the beginning of a road trip. We started a drive along the whole U.S.-Mexico border, beginning at the mouth of the Rio Grande. From there we moved westward along the border until we could go no more.

So this is it. We've reached the end. After more than 2,000 miles of travel, we're on a beach at the Pacific Ocean with the waves washing in.

We stood in the surf at Tijuana. It's in the Mexican state of Baja California, our final stop as we report on people, goods, and culture crossing the border. Tijuana is separated from San Diego by a massive steel fence. That fence cuts over the hills and through valleys. The steel bars finally march right down across the beach and out to sea, extending a hundred feet or so into the ocean.

Oh yeah, here are some kids who are hanging on to the steel bars as the surf washes in and out.

It was a busy beach on the Tijuana side, with people relaxing under the shade of umbrellas. Just uphill we were able to buy amazing fish tacos from a street-side stand while listening to a live band.


INSKEEP: Tijuana is a famous party town, though drug-related violence of a few years ago drove away many American tourists. There is much more, though, to this city of well over a million. We went driving into Tijuana neighborhoods, perched on the sides of hills and canyons. We were looking for a local landmark: a famous landmark, though the streets were so tangled we had to keep asking directions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go down the first street, down and you'll see it's a dirt road. You're going to go down that road, it'll take you straight to it.

INSKEEP: We parked the car and walked down that dirt path on the side of a canyon.

So I glimpsed her briefly from the road. She's down here somewhere. Oh there she is. She is a statue of a woman. She has one arm upraised like the Statue of Liberty. She's 55 feet high, made of concrete, completely nude. Standing at her enormous feet, we met with the creator, Armando Munoz. What was your idea when you got started on this?

ARMANDO MUNOZ: Well the idea was to celebrate the first centennial of Tijuana.

INSKEEP: The fact you said it was the centennial of Tijuana only about 24 years ago is a reminder that although we're in a part of the world where there's been settlement for a very long time, this is a new city.

MUNOZ: Yes, that's why I build this female figure as a very young anatomy.

INSKEEP: This young woman is surrounded by a city largely under development. Many hillside houses are built on foundations of stacked tires.

You hear a rooster crowing. You see the intimacy of people's backyards because the houses are crowded together on this slope. A woman is down below us doing the laundry in an outdoor washing machine. You see a child's toy car. You see laundry hanging on the backs of several houses. You see improvised porches. It has all built up in a little more than a century, making Tijuana far younger than Mexico City to the southeast or even San Francisco to the north. There used to be no reason for a major city at Tijuana. Then at the end of the U.S. war with Mexico in 1848, a borderline was drawn across the sand. It divided the U.S. and Mexico.

What drove the development of this city?

HECTOR OSUNA: The border.

INSKEEP: That's Hector Osuna. He's a former mayor of Tijuana. When San Diego and Los Angeles started to grow in Southern California across the border in the late 1800's, Tijuana grew with them. Later, Osuna says, the city became famous as a place to do what was forbidden in the United States.

OSUNA: I think it became, in times of the Prohibition, I think a lot of people came here to the Casino Agua Caliente, which is...

INSKEEP: 1920s, 1930s...

OSUNA: 1930s, 1920s, yeah.

INSKEEP: These days, Tijuana's economy is far more diverse, featuring factories and tech firms. You can see the city's wealth in the building where Hector Osuna works. Its utterly modern glass walls contain a high-end restaurant on one floor, a nightclub on another and also offices like Hector Osuna's. He's an architect, and he's been sketching plans. We're looking at this drawing, this kind of a floor plan for a...

OSUNA: (Unintelligible) hospital now.

INSKEEP: It would be the latest of many specially built facilities in Tijuana. They market to Americans, especially Mexican-Americans, who may prefer the style of Mexican doctors. For all the border security, people continue crossing from one side to the other.

When we were in Arizona, actually, a businessman on the Arizona side, a Mexican-American, used the phrase border citizen.

OSUNA: Border citizen.

INSKEEP: Border citizen. He struggled a little bit to define what he meant, but I gathered him to mean that there's this zone along the border where culture and country, and other concepts like that are just thought about a little differently than in other parts.

OSUNA: Of course, yeah. Not a lot of people understand that. I'm Mexican. I live all my life in Mexico, and I have kids that go to school every day to the U.S., they were born in the U.S. You see idea of us doing that is that I want to erase from them the border in their minds. They're bicultural, bi-national, they don't feel that there's a border. So they go and they feel comfortable in the U.S., and they come back to Mexico and feel comfortable in Mexico.

INSKEEP: Hector Osuna could pay to put his children in private California schools. Other people have more trouble maintaining those cross-border connections.


INSKEEP: One of the last things we did in Tijuana was visit Friendship Park. It's a park in the shape of a circle - right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. These days it's more proper to call it two half circles, because a high, rusted steel U.S. border fence cuts Friendship Park down the middle. The fence was rebuilt five years ago, replacing a less imposing barrier.

For a few hours on weekends, people who cannot cross from one side to the other can come to this circle. They can talk through the fence with loved ones on the other side.

The morning we visited, two parents had come to the Tijuana side to visit with their son in the U.S. They hadn't seen him in years.


INSKEEP: Oh my heart, they exclaimed, 15 years without seeing him. The son across the way, Hector Razo(ph), cannot risk a return to Mexico because he immigrated illegally to the United States.

What have you been doing these 15 years? Doing?

HECTOR RAZO: Doing, working.

INSKEEP: What do you do?

RAZO: Yeah. I do a painting, painting job.

INSKEEP: In San Diego?

RAZO: Yeah. San Diego.


RAZO: I'm really, really very happy with your country because it's a lot of opportunities. Yeah. And the life is really different. Yeah, because my kids, they are really better.

INSKEEP: His four kids had come along to the fence. And the two parts of the family chatted for a few moments in the sun, barely able to glimpse each other through the heavy wire mesh.

If you walk a bit downhill from Friendship Park, you arrive once again on the beach. You end up where the border fence ends...


INSKEEP: ...which is also where our journey ends. Here, you to raise your voice above the crashing Pacific surf.


INSKEEP: We have met so many people along the way. We've met people seeking asylum in the United States. We've met people trying to migrate into the United States who got caught and perhaps have already now been sent back. We've met law enforcement officials. We've met politicians on both sides of the border. We've met writers.

We've met musicians. The music group Intocable, who come out of Zapata, Texas, and who we saw perform in Juarez, Mexico. There's a poster up near the bull fighting ring here saying they're going to be performing here in Tijuana. The fact that their music stretches all the way along the border is a reminder that although we have traveled more than 2,000 miles, we've been in the same place the whole time - we've been in the Borderland.

The Borderland is a place of many different landscapes, but a shared experience. It's the experience of the border itself. This is where two nations rub together, develop, clash, influence each other. It's where you see the two nations in their rawest form. It's where you see Mexico and the United States crossing into their future.


INSKEEP: You can browse all the stories from the Borderland at npr.org. And next week NPR will publish a digital magazine - everything about the border, the sights, the sounds, the facts of the border, all in one place.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.